Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Winter Break

Finally, back at site for some peace and quiet! It's been a really busy summer so far, but for the moment I'm back in Ankazobe for a couple weeks. Here's what I've been up to recently:

Training! I got to go to Mantasoa for a week to help with the training of the new group of health and education volunteers. They seem like a really great group of trainees, enthusiastic but realistic, and just generally cool people. It's always fun to meet new volunteers, so meeting 27 was a lot of fun. During my week, I taught sessions on fruit drying, planting moringa, at-risk groups for malnutrition, and breastfeeding. We also organized a day of work with SEECALINE, a volunteer run Malagasy organization that deals with mother/child health and nutrition. The trainees were split into four groups with several mothers and their children to do a cooking demonstration. They had to use charcoal stoves, light the fires, and prepare food for babies such as a pumpkin and milk mash and corn soup (yum, right? Right??). During this day they also got to practice weighing babies and using the little weight tracking notebooks that the mothers bring in. I think it was nice for the trainees to get some hands-on experience, because sometimes the technical sessions can get a little boring if you're just sitting in a room listening to information. This way they got to see how they can apply their knowledge to actions in their communities.

One of my favorite things about the training week was that we got to stay at the super nice Peace Corps Training Center (PCTC) with it's comfy beds, hot showers, and constant supply of coffee and tea. And the food! O the food! It's like eating at the best hotely in all of Madagascar. I think what I like most about the meals there is that there's so much variety. When I cook for myself it's almost always just one dish, no sides or anything. At the PCTC though there's always so many choices- soup, a couple loaka (side dishes), a salad, and dessert. Maybe not the best place to be the week before my beach vacation, but so worth it. I think my favorite meal was when they made ravitoto (pounded cassava leaves) with coconut milk, green beans with garlic, voanjobory (groundnuts? I don't actually know what these are in English), and avocado salad. There was even lime cream pie for dessert, which is definitely not Malagasy, but is definitely delicious.

*As a side note, I realize how much I talk about food. It's a Peace Corps thing. Whenever you get volunteers together, the conversation inevitably turns to food in about, oh I don't know, five minutes. Even if we're in the middle of eating a really good meal, we'll be talking about other food. It's kind of weird, but c'est la vie ici.

During my training week, the trainees actually moved into the PCTC. As opposed to my stage which did homestay for the entire nine weeks (bless our hearts), trainees now split the time between homestay and PCTC. I think this is such a good idea on Peace Corps' part, because being in homestay for that long can burn people out, no matter how nice your host family is. It was fun to be able to socialize with the trainees outside of being their teacher, and they had a lot of questions for me about volunteer life. I also got to meet my new site mate, Travis, who will be moving to Ankazobe in September! I'm super excited that he'll be here, and I think we'll get along great. And I'll finally have someone to cook with again which I've missed since Esther went home.

After training I went on a mini-vacation up to Majunga with Amber to visit our friends Ali and Karina who live nearby. I hadn't seen them since December, so we had a lot to catch up on. I think Majunga is now one of my favorite places in Madagascar, after Tana and Isle St. Marie. It's a beach town, but because it's kind of out of the way of other cities isn't vazaha at all. A lot of Malagasy people go there to vacation, but there are far fewer foreign tourists than in Diego or Ft. Dauphin for example. This is great because there's still a lot of nice amenities, but they aren't ridiculously overpriced like they would be if there were more vazaha. We spent a lot of our time at the Rouges Rouches, a hotel with a great pool and free wi-fi. Any place where you can get your tan on while you download new podcasts is a winner in my book. The fact that they also had awesome panini was just a bonus!

We did go to the beach one day which was pretty cool- you can rent umbrellas and mats for about 50 cents which we did, and we brought crackers, chips, and cheese to have a little picnic. We also got watermelon there which made it really feel like a summer vacation! I have to say that the Majunga beach is not one of the prettier ones I've seen, so I didn't actually swim in the ocean, but it's always nice just to sit and listen to the waves. And of course, no trip to the beach here is complete without a freshly cut open coconut which we picked up on the way out. I recently read in a magazine someone sent me that coconut water is the new thing in the states and Whole Foods charges like, five bucks a can for it? That's crazy! That would buy a couple liters of it here with the additional treat of coconut meat.

One of the best things about Majunga is the abundance of fresh seafood. We ate some form of it every single day we were there, mostly on the boardwalk. The boardwalk, simply called “Board” by people in the know, is the long strip of road by the ocean where everyone goes at night for fish kebabs, popcorn, cotton candy, ice cream, and beer. It's basically a mini-carnival. Amber, Ali, Karina, and I went there most of our nights in Majunga. We would all squeeze into a picnic table around a little grill and tell the cook how many of each type of food we wanted. Most nights we got a few fish or shrimp kebabs each, some paka-paka (little coconut flavored tortillas), and papaya salad and made a new version of fish tacos. So. Damn. Good. On our last night we even bought a box of white wine because we're supa-classy like that. I now understand why Karina refers to Majunga as her Disneyland here. It's magical!

After that fantastic mini beach vacay it was back to Tana to pick up the four trainees who were coming to my site for their demyst trip. I wrote about demyst trips before when I hosted some trainees from the March stage, but hosting health volunteers was extra special because they got to see what they'll be doing in just a few short weeks when they move to their new sites! It was a very low-key sort of weekend with lots of hanging out, walking around, cooking, and eating. Training is really exhausting, so I think everyone could just appreciate a weekend away from schedules. Our first morning we went to the market where I introduced them to my market-grandpa and they got to practice their Gasy and assured him that they liked Ankazobe much more than Mantasoa. Then we cooked up a bunch of onion scrambled eggs and fruit salad with pineapple, bananas, and oranges with a honey-yogurt dressing. I had also brought croissants and pain au chocolat from Tana, so we had a really nice little brunch. This is why I'm glad I'm getting a site-mate- I never cook big meals like that for myself, but if you have another person to share it with it's a lot more feasible. That night we did burgers, pasta salad, and beers and watched the movie Volunteers which is hilarious when you're with other PCVs. “Jesus H. Christ, we must be a mile from the sun!”

On their second day at my site we went to the hotely for omelets, bread, coffee, and tamarind juice. They were given forms they had to fill our during their trip, so we worked on that. It was mostly questions about my site and work, with another sheet that asked for sample prices for a lot of items so they could get an idea of the shopping they would need to do for their installation. After breakfast we went to the clinic where they met a few of my co-workers including the pharmacist who was just so excited to meet so many new vazaha. They all really liked her, which wasn't at all surprising. Since it was Monday it was big market day in my town, so we wandered around for a while and they bought voandalana (gifts from traveling) for their host families like peanut brittle, hats, and colored pencils. I know those will be much appreciated! We had one last meal together at the hotely again, and then said our goodbyes because their taxi-brousse left at four the next morning. It was so much fun hosting them in Ankazobe and I know they're all going to do awesome when they get to their sites.

And now it's back to just me, alone in my house. As fun as the last month has been, it's really nice to have some solitude again. As I was taking the trainees around my village I realized how many people I know here, and they all seemed really happy to see me after I'd been gone for so long. It was nice to be reminded that this really is my home and I have friends here, because sometimes all I feel is the isolation of being the lone vazaha. But people actually do notice when I'm not around and are interested to hear what I've been up to and catch up on life. It's nice to be back to the slower pace of the village for a while, where I can read and play ukulele and cook simple small meals on my own schedule. That, I think, is the biggest difference between training and volunteer life and I'm so glad to be living the latter!

Till next time, mazatoa (enjoy)!